Friday, November 11, 2011

Good Intentions - Paving the Road to Hell, Pt.2

Paul Adams
Good Intentions
There are two aspects of this subject.  The first is the tendency of those variously described as having an unconstrained vision of reality (Sowell), as unscrupulous optimists (Scruton), or socialists-from-above (Draper), to think their own good intentions cover a multitude of sins and to discount the human costs of achieving their goals. I discussed this aspect yesterday in Part 1 of this consideration of intentions.

The second is about how the attribution of good intentions only to your party or side and of evil intent to your opponents is an expression of intellectual laziness. It is said that when a conservative disagrees with you, say about social policy, poverty, government, or economic policy, he concludes that you are wrong.  When a liberal disagrees with you, he concludes that you are intellectually or morally defective.

Now I have no statistical evidence of that, though it does conform to my impressions of the liberal-academic and social work worlds in which I have spent most of my life.  I do not listen to conservative rant radio, but I am struck by how the much more reputable New York Times will print what can only be described as liberal rants, full of personal venom, sneering, and scorn, on its op-ed pages (Dowd is perhaps the worst but certainly not the only perpetrator), whereas the more conservative commentators (Brooks, Douthat) there are thoughtful and make reasoned arguments (usually followed by hundreds of contemptuous posts from readers in their comboxes). 

In any case, my point is not to determine who is most prone to this kind of intellectual laziness and degradation of public discourse, but to identify the problem and its consequences for social policy debate.

Take the case of the Catholic, and now more general, concept of social justice.  The liberal, secular political scientist, Brian Barry, wrote a substantial book on Why Social Justice Matters that simply assumes that social justice means the social-democratic welfare state.  Anyone who opposes that approach to poverty, inequality or other social problems, is simply an enemy of social justice.

Michael Novak, by contrast, has argued carefully and at length for a different conception of social justice, one similar to that of the Center for Social Justice in the U.K.  It is not a statist conception – it emphasizes the importance of the caring and helping energy and institutions that mediate between individual and state, that is the “mediating structures” (Berger & Neuhaus) and civil society.  It emphasizes the need to empower individuals and families, rather than to substitute state provision (see Gilbert, Transformation of the Welfare State).  The U.K.’s Centre for Social Justice seeks to address the same problems of poverty as concern Barry, but it “highlights the work of profoundly differing and unique small voluntary organisations and charities”  and takes the view that “The war on poverty can be won if government gets off the back of the armies of compassion and helps them to succeed.”  In line with the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching, this approach emphasizes the need to find solutions as close as possible to the people involved.

Debate between these viewpoints is simply pre-empted by making the assumption that your opponents do not support justice at all.  If they did, they would agree with you.  If you want to relieve poverty, you must support expanded government programs. A preference for the poor, which the Catholic Church calls for, is taken to mean a preference for government programs. Can we just assume that those who oppose or criticize liberal nostrums in social policy are ipso facto against social justice or the poor?  But who supports injustice?  Or poverty?

The intellectual laziness in this move is evident.  It saves you the trouble of engaging your opponents and it has the advantage of portraying them as morally defective and heartless.  It is how social policy is taught, in my experience, in schools of social work.

The Occupy Wall Street movement highlights this tendency, in that it has no coherent analysis of the object of its anger and no trace that I have found even of a coherent demand.   It appeals to hatred of “fat cats,” bankers, and not so subliminally, Jews.  That bankers have caused the economic crisis by their greed and predatory lending is simply assumed.  This despite the more than 30 books and numerous studies since 2008 that have “established the flow of events, activities, policies, behavior and characters that led to the debacle” (Kramer, 2011).  They tell a different story. As financial columnist Gerald Kramer puts it,

The irrefutable conclusion from these resources: while banks facilitated the bubble with mortgage proliferation, they would not and could not have flooded the market with the $7.8 trillion in subprime loans outstanding in 2008 without the overt incentives of government guaranteed agencies….
I have not read the 30 books and do not want to adjudicate between the different analyses, except to say that the OWS assumption rests on no serious analysis at all.  It substitutes emoting for reason and evidence, while assuming the evil intentions or motivations of those it holds responsible (its scapegoats). 

The other point, easily missed by conservative critics too, is that discussion of the issues in the public square is more likely to be productive if it begins from the assumption of good intentions on the part of those who are blamed or with whom you disagree.  That is, government policies under Clinton and Bush may have led to a sudden climb in U.S. home ownership from 65% (holding steady for 30 years) to 69% in 2007 – much of that increase accounted for by subprime loans to people no bank (without government guarantees) would ever consider for a loan, let alone a large mortgage with no downpayment.  But the bubble, we should assume at the beginning of a serious discussion, did not result from greedy bankers or power-hungry government agencies and bureaucrats, but from a well-meaning effort to expand home ownership to more Americans.

Much the same seems to be under way with the next big bubble, that of higher education loans.  Higher education becomes more expensive by the day, and with less prospect of offering much education to most of its “consumers.”  Yet the loans to pay for it are given in vast quantities to people who either have no prospect of ever repaying them or at best will be burdened for life with enormous debt. Again, the impending bubble results not from evil intent on the part of lenders or government, but from the well-meaning effort to expand access to higher education.

To raise these questions is the responsibility of anyone seriously engaged with such policy issues.  It does no good to say they are simply the expression of nasty rightwingers who are against home ownership or education.

Policy makers may or may not have good intentions in any particular case.  But the assumption that they do not – or that they do and that is enough – is usually a lazy substitute for analysis and an obstacle to serious public discussion and debate.

The first wisdom in social policy is that policies are prone to unintended (and too often unforeseen) consequences.  The worst consequences often flow not from the worst, but the best intentions.  In policy it is often the broad road to hell. At the same time, the assumption of bad intentions blocks policy analysis and debate in the first place.

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